2021 Disturbing the Peace Award Presentation

The 2021 Disturbing the Peace Award to a Courageous Writer at Risk was presented by Adam Michnik, the Polish historian-essayist-journalist, who himself was imprisoned for anti-communist dissent. Michnik continues to serve as editor of the important newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, a job given to him by Lech Walesa. He received the French Legion of Honour and numerous other awards for his own writing and bravery.

His presentation speech was translated and delivered at VHLF Gala in New York by Elzbieta Matynia, a Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research in New York and distinguished author of An Uncanny Era, a book of post-revolutionary conversations between Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik.

 “Dear Ms. April, On the day Mr. Vaclav Havel became the new president of this republic of ours, when enthusiasm overflowed so much that streams of tears swelled Vltava’s waters,  I walked along the Royal Road, which was so plastered with writing that no fragment of wall and no patch of storefront window were left bare, and the resounding emotions and gestures of students expressed the desire that a man as young as they were should be president, a man who was the measure not only of our political life but also the measure of the world…”

From the letter of Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal to a young American student

Indeed, Havel was then – at the end of 1989 and beginning of 1990 – the indisputable leader of the Velvet Revolution; he was worshiped. At the backstage of a theater an eminent professor is said to have told him that he was greater than God.

His candidacy for the presidency was supported by the street, by organizations that came out of the democratic opposition circles, by all official institutions, the Women’s League, and even the Czech People’s Army. All members of Parliament voted for him – even those who, as Havel would later recall, “only a few days or weeks before…had loudly approved my prosecution and imprisonment.”

This writer, dissident, and political prisoner became the face of the new Czechoslovakia and a star of international media. “Later on,” – he wrote after many years – “I had to pay a high price for that adulation.”

In the 1980s he recalled: “I was constantly ‘shadowed;’ there were interrogations; the local authorities plotted against me; I was under house arrest several times, and this was made more piquant by insults and threats. ‘Unknown perpetrators’ broke into our dwelling and vandalized it, or they did all sorts of damage to my car. It was an exciting time, with attacks by the police, escaping from shadows, crawling through the woods, hiding out in the flats of co-conspirators, house searches, and dramatic moments when important documents were eaten. It was also at this time that we had meetings with the Polish dissidents on our common border.”

The notorious anti-hiker Havel was compelled to walk to the summit of Snezka five times, but there was a reward: he was able to meet and establish permanent friendships with Jacek Kuron, myself, and other members of KOR, the Workers’ Defense Committee. And this is when he conceived his brilliant essay The Power of the Powerless. And it was there on Mount Snezka – in the summer of 1978 – on the 10th anniversary of the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia, that my personal adventure with Vaclav Havel began.    

At one point he said that a dissident is like Sisyphus, someone who pushes his stone up the mountain even though he knows the chances of reaching the top are next to nothing, but who nonetheless has to keep pushing in order to be at peace with himself and give his life meaning.

During the dark times of “normalization” after the 1968 Soviet invasion, the philosopher Jan Patočka, who was an intellectual mentor and moral authority for Czech dissidents, wrote:

“At present the intellectual has three possible ways of proceeding: internal emigration, like Plato; the path of compromise, like the sophists; or, like Socrates, consistent  ‘living-in-truth’,  conflict with the authorities, and death.”

And in this essay about T.G. Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, Patočka wrote: “For the most part, philosophers constructed an ideal state, but in all of history its realization by means of actual political action was given to only one thinker, namely to Masaryk.”

Well….  Patočka was no longer with us when Havel made the second such attempt. Like Socrates, he chose the path of uncompromising conflict with the authorities.  But unexpectedly – by coincidence – Socrates became Pericles. In December 1989, Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia.

A writer and a citizen, Vaclav Havel was an iconic figure among those intellectual and artistic communities in Eastern and Central Europe who contested the surrounding world of dictatorship, doublespeak, and kitsch. Havel had an acute sense of intellectual and civic obligation. Freedom and truth are what he defended as a writer, and what permeated his inner life as a citizen.

We know that this way of living, firmly entrenched in the Judeo-Christian, European, and American tradition, was also led by such masters of the tradition as Jonathan Swift and George Orwell, Victor Hugo and Albert Camus, Sándor Petőfi and István Bibó, Adam Mickiewicz and Czesław Miłosz, Alexander Herzen and Peter Chaadaev, Tomas Venclova, Vasyl Bykov and Vasyl Stus.

These are now joined by the extraordinary Belarusian poet, political prisoner Dmitri Strotsev, wisely honored by the Vaclav Havel Library. Belarusian society’s rebellion against the election fraud by Alexander Lukashenko, a tyrant who clings to power thanks only to the support of Vladimir Putin, came as a sign of hope that it is possible to make the world a better place and to defend human dignity against despotism and subjugation.

The award bestowed upon Dmitri Strotsev, author of the insightful and unsettling poetic epos Belarus Overturned, is of great significance for people in our part of the world, as it reflects a concern for the values of a humanistic culture that today faces threats from populism, xenophobia, and homophobia ­– those nasty manifestations of contemporary totalitarianism.

May this year’s Disturbing the Peace Award to a Courageous Writer serve the cause of freedom in Belarus – and the freedom of a people in an independent Belarusian state.

It offers a beacon of hope for all of us. Let us all work towards keeping this hope alive.